PLAYBOY: Do some stars have a harder time handling fame than others?
DAVIS: Yes, and I have seen the extra pressure that comes with fame, which can be seductive and corrupting. If fame is added to the equation, maybe it becomes difficult for some people to cope.
PLAYBOY: There are many stories about fame and rock stars—their excesses, and not only in relation to drugs. They’ve famously destroyed hotel rooms. Some insist on only red M&M’s in their dressing rooms. Have you had to deal with that kind of behavior?
DAVIS: My experience with all the hotel-room stuff is limited to what I read in the magazines. The biggest argument I had was probably with Ray Davies and his brother of the Kinks. I’m not trying to be lily-white. I just didn’t see it. Maybe I was lucky with the artists I worked with. Patti Smith would occasionally urinate onstage, though never when I was there. I don’t know exactly how she pulled it off or what it meant.
PLAYBOY: Was it sometimes hard to get artists to take the business side seriously? Rock stars are often portrayed as treating the business executives—the “suits,” as they refer to them—dismissively.
DAVIS: If you’re saying they’re disdainful of the business side, I would take issue with that. It might not have been fashionable for them to admit that business entered their thinking, but the major artists always made sure they had the best lawyers and the best business negotiators to get the best deals possible. They all did think about it. Most of the artists I’ve worked with were very astute.
PLAYBOY: It takes more than a good business sense for someone to discover artists of the caliber of the musicians with whom you’ve worked. Do you attribute your track record to an ear for hits?
DAVIS: I was unaware at first that I might have an ear for music. I never thought about it. But just trusting my instinct, I started signing. It’s common sense, knowing a hit.
PLAYBOY: How do you know a hit?
DAVIS: Part of it is hard work. I still to this day take home tapes of all the hits in every genre to listen to, because music keeps changing. Many of my peers, and many artists, will deliver songs that could have been a hit five or 10 years ago, but they’re not at all aware that music has changed. So a lot of it is preparation. It’s hard work. I study what people are listening to. I’ve always listened to every hit in the Top 40—to every record that makes the chart, whether it’s a hit or not. I don’t mean the top 10 hits of the Top 40. I always listen to the new entries and R&B, hip-hop and rock so I keep my ears current.
PLAYBOY: But listening to a lot of music isn’t enough. If it were, there would be countless successes in your business, when in fact there are few.
DAVIS: I didn’t necessarily have an ear, but I think I developed one. Whether there was a natural ear that was triggered, I don’t know the answer to that. But when you see a Joplin or a Springsteen, you know. And the statistics start mounting and give you confidence. You think, My God, yeah, I did say yes to Santana.
PLAYBOY: Did you listen to music when you were growing up?
DAVIS: I didn’t collect records, but I listened to the radio. I always listened to [1940s and 1950s DJ] Martin Block. I would listen, but I was not an avid music fan to the point that there was any sign music was going to become the passion of my life. It was not a calling I knew existed within me. It was something I discovered later.
PLAYBOY: Did you become a fan of any particular artist?
DAVIS: Sinatra was one. At first he just seemed like a pop craze—women screaming and the teenyboppers and bobby-soxers—but it became clear that he was unique. He combined pop music and jazz. He crossed every barrier. Beyond him, my background was much more in the theatrical tradition. I was bowled over when I saw Oklahoma! and Carousel. My respect for songwriting came from the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter. I think America’s greatest contribution to music has been, alongside jazz, the great American songwriters in the theatrical tradition.
PLAYBOY: When did you first begin to think about signing musicians?
DAVIS: I had finished my freshman year of college and lost both parents within 10 months of each other. I had a support group with a sister and an aunt with whom I was close, but that was a tough time. I was in a Jewish family and grew up in the public school system of New York, and there was a work ethic that I was left with that said the way you rise above your station is to become either a doctor or a lawyer. I never loved science, but I did love politics and government, so I became an attorney. By some accident, the company I worked for owned a record company. Soon I was running it. That’s when I went to the Monterey Pop Festival. It was the 1960s and the time of Haight-Ashbury, but I had no idea what awaited me. I thought the Monterey Pop Festival was a social event where I would see Simon & Garfunkel and the Mamas and the Papas and be with my friend [the producer] Lou Adler. My life changed there. I sensed a total social, cultural, musical revolution, and my peers in the music business had no idea. They didn’t see it; they just were not there. That’s probably the epiphany that changed my life. Janis Joplin was performing there, and I went on to sign her.
PLAYBOY: There’s a legendary story that Janis Joplin propositioned you. What happened?
DAVIS: She volunteered. Let’s just say that.
DAVIS: I declined. But in spite of that, I knew she was brilliant. When she sang you just felt something. It’s hard to describe it when you hear it, but you know. It happened with Whitney, Patti Smith. There are the clichés—yes, you feel a tingle in your spine.
PLAYBOY: Did you feel it when you first heard Bruce Springsteen?
DAVIS: The Bruce Springsteen we know now isn’t the one I saw that first time. I was impressed by his lyrics but not by him as a performer. I never knew Springsteen would develop into a rock-and-roll performer second to none. He started out as a folksinger standing quietly onstage, singing his songs.
In 1971, when Bill Graham closed the Fillmore East and Fillmore West, journalists were saying, “Is this the death of rock and roll?” Of course it wasn’t. In 1973 I decided to take over the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles for seven consecutive nights. Every night I put on shows that paired artists, mixing and matching classical, rock, pop and jazz. I put on Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Mathis, Loudon Wainwright. I did it to show the vitality and variation of rock. Three acts each night. It became clear the music was not dead.
For one of these shows, Bruce performed. His career had just begun. He gets on the stage with his guitar and just stands there. He plays and sings his songs and does nothing else. Emboldened by the confidence I was gaining from my signings, afterward I said to him, “Bruce, when you’re onstage like that you can’t just stand there. You’ve got to move.” He was listening, but I didn’t think he was really absorbing what I was saying. Two years later, still before he had broken big, he was playing the Bottom Line in New York. It had maybe 500 seats. I’d started Arista Records by then. I’d signed Bruce when I was still at Columbia, so I wasn’t working with him at the time, but his manager, Jon Landau, said, “You’ve got to come. Bruce very badly wants you to come.”
I went down to the Bottom Line and was astonished. This was not the Bruce Springsteen I had signed. He was not sitting quietly on the stage. He was not walking around the stage. He was jumping on tables, literally jumping off the stage. After the concert I went backstage, and he looked up and said, “Did I move around enough for you?” He became a great performer, one of the best. But that’s not why I had signed him. I signed him for his lyrics.
PLAYBOY: How do you sell an artist to the public based on his lyrics?
DAVIS: I went on closed-circuit TV to speak to all the Columbia branches. The employees were in their offices, and I read every lyric to every song on the album. I said, “This is not another Bob Dylan.” There were too many of those. If you ask me who American music’s poet laureate for these past decades has been, it would be very tough to decide whether it’s Dylan or Springsteen. The two of them are in a rarefied category together, but they’re very different. I was trying to show that this new artist’s imagery was like nothing anyone had ever heard before. But even though I knew he was a brilliant songwriter, at that time I didn’t know where he was going as a live performer.